Sticks in the Smoke 27: St Mary Aldermanbury; St Mary Staining; St Olave Silver Street

St-Mary-Aldermanbury(Thursday 18 August 2016)

This is part of the City  where ancient and very modern just about rub along ok, sometimes almost literally! I’m so close to gardens I’ve visited before: Postman’s Park, St Pauls, St Alphage and Finsbury Circus are each less than 5 minutes away. The map here is littered with these little green fragments, almost as though the occupants of this area of high rise, high finance and high flyers, more than most, need regular grounding!

It’s warm and bright and breezy. Perfect conditions for drawing. So today I’m feeling ambitious and aim to tackle three gardens, all on the footprints of ruined churches. They’re so close that you could comfortably hold your breath while walking from one to the other. I don’t do that though.

But exactly 350 years ago you’d probably want to! If you were winding your way through the waste ridden and filthy narrow streets of this part of London in the heatwave of August 1666, the air would be ripe and malodorous and full of flies. But in just over a fireengravingfortnight, and less than a mile away, a small bakery fire was to get out of control, fanned into the thundering inferno of the Great Fire, and funnelled ever closer towards these alleys, fuelled by the tinder dry timber and thatch houses. You and your family would be forced to take flight, clutching the few possessions you could manage, towards what you hoped would be the sanctuary of one of the three nearby stone churches of St Mary Aldermanbury, St Mary Staining or St Olave Silver Street. But very soon you’d have to flee again, as these havens were also threatened. A desperate dash towards the staunch firebreak of London Wall, joining the panicking throng trying to squeeze through Cripplegate. Maybe abandoning precious belongings so you could protect your children from the worst of the choking smoke and showers of burning embers. And looking just to the south: a great plume of leaping flame and sparks from the tower and roofs of St Paul’s Cathedral. What hope then for these small parish churches.

St Mary Aldermanbury

I stand in the shade of a robinia tree, a flame of golden green, in a corner of this comfortable retreat of just under 2 acres. Hedges, shrubs, herbaceous planted beds, a parched, well- used lawn and enclosed seating areas on different levels. The ancient stone pillar footings, now used as picnic tables, seating or backrests for relaxing and lunching 027boffice workers: an ever- changing, munching congregation. The cooling breeze brings spiced and pungent aromas of at least 30 diverse lunches to my nostrils. And the mix of scrunches, crackles and rustles of food wrappers to my ears.

This ground is where a Roman amphitheatre once stood, the largest in the land (you can still see remains of it in the nearby Guildhall Art Gallery basement). Over the centuries, this became established as a major gathering place; probably why the Guildhall (the administrative centre of the City of London for over 800 years) was originally sited here in Saxon times. The church of St Mary Aldermanbury was built next to the Guildhall in 1437. After its destruction in the Great Fire, it was rebuilt in Portland stone by Christopher Wren, but fire-gutted once again during the Blitz on the night of 29/30 December 1940. It was not rebuilt (although its stones were transported across the Atlantic in 1966 by the residents of Fulton, Missouri to build a replica of the church).
A plaque on the garden wall reads ‘Aldermanbury Conduit stood in this street providing free water 1471 – 18th century’. This was a branch of The Great Conduit: a system of lead pipes
027awhich channelled fresh water from a spring near Tyburn village. Local streams and rivers were becoming increasingly contaminated as the City’s population grew. Much of this pipework melted during the Great Fire and proved too costly to replace.
The breeze ruffles the newspapers of bench occupants in the upper terrace area, surrounding a pink granite monument to Henry Condell and John Heminges, who lived in this parish. They were the first publishers of Shakespeare‘s plays, and actors / partners in the Globe Theatre (It’s known that Shakespeare wasn’t bothered much about publishing his writing. One of the plaques reads: “What they did was priceless, for the whole of his manuscripts, with almost all of those of the dramas of the period have perished”). The monument is topped with a bust of Shakespeare, sunlight glinting from shiny bald head.

St-Mary-StainingSt. Mary Staining

A minute’s walk down Love Lane and through the square tunnel of St Alban’s Court under the 100 Wood Lane office building and out into this intimate space enclosed 027cby the towering semicircle of steel and bluegreen glass around two sides, and the brick solidity of the 1950s Pewterer’s Hall along the west edge opposite. I can’t believe this overshadowed little garden (less than tenth of an acre!) ever receives sunlight! One great plane tree is all it can support, along with evergreen shrubs, a fatsia, laurels. And a bed of hydrangeas and amaryllis. I find a spot in the flowerbed by the entrance steps to set my easel so I can get the best possible view across the garden.
In 1189 there is a reference to the church here as ‘Ecclesia de Staningehage’. This roughly translates as ‘church under the control of Staines‘; it is thought that this church was attached to an area here which was owned and administered from Staines, possibly as temporary compound and storage for crops and livestock being 027dmoved to market. In 1278 a murder took place here when Richard de Codeford, accused of robbery, took refuge in the church and speared his pursuers with a lance through a hole in the window.
After the Great Fire in 1666, the church was never rebuilt, but the space kept as a churchyard.
This isn’t nearly as busy the other St Mary. A few people come and go. Workmen eating and smoking, chatting and laughing. One is lounging on the grass and talking on his phone. The breeze is picking up and I have to hold my sketchbook down. I can hear the clattering of a drink can being blown around in circles, echoing from wall to wall. Three official looking men in suits carry huge bobbing bags of metallic red balloons up Staining Lane and into the office building opposite.

St-Olave-Silver-StreetSt. Olave, Silver Street

Only another minute or so up to the top of Noble Street (Silver street no longer exists, wiped 027eout in the massive redevelopment of this area after the 2nd World War), and the garden of St Olave, on the edge of the frantic thoroughfare of London Wall. The original church was dedicated to St Olaf, a Norwegian Christian ally of the English king Ethelred II.
I get myself a cup of tea from EAT, just behind the garden, and take scalding sips while drawing from the upper lawn, towards the huge red and blue aircon funnels of the 88 Wood Street building, looking like a supertanker has just docked alongside.
A large roughly octagonal stone, with a hollow of water in its top, stands in the lower lawn, marking the site of the old church. It looks like a wide font, but is more likely to be the base of a pillar.
027fExcited knots of international students are blazing a historical trail through the city of London and descend on the garden every few minutes. They have to locate the stone commemorative tablet engraved with skull and crossbones. Most find it eventually, but one group walks straight past and then wanders around looking confused. I’m standing close to the top of the steps where the stone is embedded (I could have shown them where, but don’t, and then feel guilty!). Below the skull and crossbones, the tablet reads: “This was the Parish Church of St. Olave Silver Street, Destroyed by the Dreadfull Fire in the Year 1666”
On a bench behind me, a cycle courier has his bike upside down, trying to fix the chain. For a while there’s the spasmodic buzzing of his spinning bike wheel, amplified by the wooden bench slats.
From the outside this is an unassuming little garden (about sixth of an acre), mostly used as a shortcut and somewhere for a quick bite or a smoke in passing. But step within and stay awhile and, enclosed by its thriving greenery and spreading foliage, a great sense of serenity and stillness descends.

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

St Mary Aldermanbury, Love Lane, London. EC2V 7HP
St Mary Staining, Oat Lane, London. EC2V 7EE
St Olave Silver Street, Noble St, London. EC2V 7EE
Google earth view here

Illustration: Woodcut from ‘Shlohavot, or, The burning of London in the year 1666’ Museum of London

Sticks in the Smoke 26: Holland Park, Kensington

holland-park-1(Thursday 2 August 2016)

The forecast was for a 20% chance of light rain today, but I’m splashing along Kensington High Street towards the Holland Walk entrance to the park through a heavy downpour and hoping the 80% begins to happen soon.

Holland Park spreads across land that was once part of the grounds of Cope Castle, built in 1605 for Sir Walter Cope, the Chamberlain of the Exchequer. His daughter, Isabel, inherited the property. She married Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, a Royalist officer, who was beheaded for treason in the Tower of London in 1649 and is said to haunt the house with his head under his arm. During the Civil War, the castle was taken over and occupied by the Roundheads and was often used by Cromwell. After the war it was returned to the family, who renamed it Holland House. This was still a predominantly rural area, but during the 1800s, as demand for housing grew, much of the 500 acre estate was sold off for building, leaving these 54 acres.
026aThe rain continues on and off. This is such a full and multifaceted park: enclosed gardens, hidden spaces, ornamental flower gardens, sculptures, secret corners, rose beds etc that it takes me an hour or so of walking, dodging showers, and hunting for a view that encapsulates it. In the end I’m forced under cover in the Orangery arcade, looking out across the Iris Garden (sadly too late in the year for the flowers!) and towards the William Pye ‘Sibirica’ fountain sculpture, rising like a verdigris flower trumpet from the circular pond. Up to the left is the Belvedere restaurant, topped with bell tower and resident peacocks strutting haughtily and announcing their presence with strident shrieks.

This, the library and the east wing of the house is all that survived a massive ten- hour Blitz bombardment of 22 incendiary bombs during the night of 27 September 1940. The ruins and the grounds were purchased by London County Council in 1952 from the last private owner, the 6th Earl of Ilchester and opened to the public. The formal gardens, walls and walks were restored. The southern section was laid out as sports fields and the northern half left as mostly natural wild woodland.

On the back wall of the colonnade is a long mural by Mao Wen Biao, depicting scenes of Edwardian social grandeur: elegant ladies and blazered gentlemen against backdrops of rose bushes and dappled sunlight. A far cry from today! I unpack my sketchbook and light raindrops pitter on its cover. I step further back under the arch.

As I draw, I start to notice figures dodging through the drizzle, some hooded, some hunched, all determinedly hunting with phones clutched in front. Singly, in pairs or groups, they make their way down the steps, around the pond, along the colonnade: Pokémon Go hunters! Hesitant footsteps behind me as I draw, and “it’s gotta be down here somewhere!” and a yell of “Hey! There’s an Eevie down there!”.  I find out, a bit alarmingly, that I’m standing halfway between a Bulbasaur and an Eevie.

026cThe sun peeks out for a moment and brings a busily chittering coach party of about 20 ladies in wide red hats with purple ribbons and red jackets into the garden. They linger and look lost and some point in different directions. One asks me if I know where Alice is. And I say that I really have no idea. Then one shouts “This way girls!” and they swish down the passage and out. An acrid cloud of mingled perfume hangs in the air behind them and slowly descends on me and two young lads who are trying to locate the Bulbasaur.

Music stutters and wafts across. Sounds of tuning up, a trumpet, fragments of song. Later, I discover that it’s for this afternoon’s opera: Alice in Wonderland ( composed by Will Todd). Since 1986, opera has been staged every summer under canopied cover on the lawns. After scores of critically acclaimed performances over the years, Opera Holland Park has become a prestigious mainstay of the London cultural calendar.

On the further lawn, I can just see some teenagers are manically clonking each other with the giant plastic garden chess pieces.026b

Flagstones steam in the muggy sunshine. I pack my things and meander through the magnificent Dutch garden, box- hedged and elegantly colourful. Then skirt around the edge of the Japanese themed Kyoto garden (I’m planning to come back to draw here another time). Down a path and here’s a pond with seated statue up on a plinth, of the Victorian 3rd Lord Holland, sculpted by George Frederick Watts. Remember him? Creator of the extraordinary Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice at Postman’s Park, in ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ 25.

On into the wilder, wooded area. There’s a damp leaf littery scent. A maze of paths and tracks. Sounds of wildlife rustling, calling and chirping in the dark and dripping woods. Three teenage boys lurch past on Boris bikes, trying to keep an eye on their phones as they go.


I find a clearing near the Abbotsbury Road entrance and set up my easel for a second sketch. Watery light makes a bright pool on the grass, which looks stringy and parched after last month’s lack of rain. Five pathways converge and emanate from this clearing. As I draw, ever more Pokémon Go seekers walk past, in twos and threes and larger groups. They seem to be coalescing with the gravity of a common purpose. A large group of, 026dperhaps, 15 disappear up one path, only to reappear five minutes later from another, having collected 7 or 8 more members. Every one an Alice, chasing after their own versions of the White Rabbit.

A squirrel scuttles through the oak tree canopy above. Birdsong echoes. Much happens here to encourage, preserve and protect nature. The Ecology Centre promotes awareness and understanding of biodiversity, working particularly with schools. Pigs and cows have been brought in over the past few years, as part of a conservation-grazing project by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to restore woodland meadow areas, which had become nettle and bramble choked. And the Friends of Holland Park is a voluntary group to promote the conservation of the natural plant, animal and bird life of the Park and, in particular, its retention as a natural woodland habitat for wildlife.

Spits of rain begin once more and I pack my things.  The 3 boys on bikes wobble past again. The last one struggling and out of breath and yells: “I’m knackered and wet and still not caught nothing. Whose dumb idea was this?


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Holland Park, Kensington, London. W8 6LU
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 25: Postman’s Park, St Martin le Grand

postman's-park(Thursday 28 July 2016)

The layout of Postman’s Park looks like it was based on 3 different sized envelopes dropped randomly together on the doormat. And, although the ‘envelopes’ do unify together into this calm, welcoming and sheltered space, each still retains its own unique character. They were originally the churchyard of St Botolph-without-Aldersgate (St Botolph was the Anglo­Saxon patron saint of travellers, consequently churches dedicated to him were often close to city gates.  The church has been here since the 12th century, although the present brick building, with pillared and porticoed frontage, dates back to the early 1800s), alongwith the adjacent burial grounds of nearby St Leonard’s Foster Lane (destroyed in the Great Fire of London) and Christchurch, Newgate Street (which was mostly burnt to the ground in the Blitz).

25bSturdy decorative railings stand at the St Martin le Grand entrance, with an 1870s granite drinking fountain (still working!). The gate arch has its original Victorian gas lamp girdle. Up these steps and into a cool and shady yard, trees and luxuriant evergreen shrubs forming a leafy guard of honour. Then a round pond with dripping mossy fountain, tree canopies darkly reflected and sparkles of sky, with vivid ribbons of goldfish slowly curling in the depths.

Emerging into the wider, brighter section, I look across to the southern border: rounded lawns and a variety of trees, dominated by the rockface of a neoclassical office block. This was the site of the 8th century collegiate church and monastic precinct of St. Martin’s, originally founded by King Wihtred of Kent, rebuilt and expanded over the centuries.  As it 25awas so close to Aldersgate, the church was responsible for sounding the curfew bell in the evenings, which announced the closing of the City’s gates. It was dissolved in the Dissolution and demolished in 1548. The huge GPO headquarters and central sorting office were built on this spot in the early 1800’s. The gardens were so popular with the Post Office staff that it was renamed ‘Postman’s Park’.

A fine drizzle starts and I stroll around the shadier northern garden segment, which is bordered by Little Britain (an ancient, narrow street which winds from Smithfield, named after the Dukes of Brittany who built a house here in the 15th century) and set my easel on a piece of earth under a chestnut tree for cover.  I think it has blight as there’s an untimely rustling scatter of red gold leaves on the ground (Later I catch sight of a planning notice on the railings outside stating that the chestnut and a plane tree 25care due for felling soon, to be replaced by an ornamental acer). The park is busy with office workers, tourist groups and day- out families.

In front of me are colourfully planted quadrant beds, encircling an old stone sundial base. It has the feel of an abundant tropical garden, with four banana palms, large leaves spreading and unfurling and seeming to transmit a vivid yellowgreen light. And a host of verbena flowers on tall stems appear to hover in front of my eyes like exotic violet moths. And opposite is a long loggia, looking something like an Indonesian monsoon shelter.

But take a closer look and the contents of that shelter transform this space from pleasant garden into a place of truly powerful significance! This is George Frederic Watts‘s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice: glazed plaques commemorating the lives of 62 individuals who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten.  Watts, a well known Symbolist painter and sculptor, had long considered a national monument to the bravery of ordinary people, believing that these people were models of exemplary behaviour and character. He said: “the material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are“. In the 1860’s he had proposed a colossal bronze figure: “a great statue to Unknown Worth”, but was unable to get funding for this. As an alternative, he proposed this memorial. Even then it was a struggle for him to win support and find a location So it wasn’t until 1900, only 4 years before his death, that the project was finally realised. There is space here for 120 plaques. The first 24 were designed and produced by William De Morgan, each one glazed onto a block of six tiles.  After Watts died, his widow Mary Watts, oversaw the creation of a further 29 by Royal Doulton. The following give a flavour:







The project lapsed after 53 plaques had been installed until, in 2009, the Diocese of London finally consented to further additions and another was added, the first in 78 years, to Leigh Pitt, a print technician, who died in 2007, rescuing a 9 year­ old girl who had fallen into a canal (a cellophane wrapped rose is taped to his plaque).


In 2015 The Friends of the Watts Memorial was established, run by volunteers, with the primary aims of protecting, preserving and promoting the memorial and, ultimately, to work towards completing Watts’ original plan. A full list of the plaques can be viewed here.

A squirrel skitters across the wet tile roof, a shortcut from oak to plane. The rain has stopped. The sun emerges briefly, sending sprinkles of light across the paving.  A guide is giving a passionate talk about the Watts Memorial to a tour group, but all look around at the sudden loud shriek of a little girl who’s slipped while chasing her brother around the sundial. A large and burly dad springs over to scoop her up.

This is not a place of morbidity. The Arts and Crafts design and lettering of each plaque instead evoke celebration of life and humanity. Look over the heads of people sitting and chatting or eating their Pret a Mangers and sheltering from today’s light showers. Be drawn along by these nutshells of tragic dramas immortalised in ceramic. Then walk away in thoughtful contemplation of these ordinary people whose heroic final moments have raised them far above the ordinary.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Postman’s Park, St Martin le Grand, London. EC1A 4AS
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 24: The Green Park, Piccadilly

green-park-1(Thursday 21 July 2016)

From the hot and busy east end of the The Green Park, close to the station entrance, I quickly escape the crowds and walk in shade, parallel with Piccadilly, towards the west corner of this 47 acre triangle of (mostly) trees and grass, where stands the impressive RAF Bomber Command Memorial. The lawns become more like grassy meadows, natural and unkempt and overgrown and I’m distracted by the Watering Holes drinking fountain, a slab of blue grey granite, pierced with three large holes, looking something between a Barbara Hepworth sculpture and a slice of Emmental cheese (this was funded by the  Tiffany and Co Foundation, who also sponsored the restoration of the fountains in the Italian Gardens see Sticks In The Smoke 20). And then, beyond, there’s a trio of ancient hawthorn trees, dried and bent and brittle as witches, with purple grey bark, almost dead like firewood, but still a few topmost sprigs of foliage show life’s still clinging on. Beneath is a swathe of downy thistles. I unpack my drawing things in the shade of a spreading plane tree. Here it’s a perfect temperature (after the swelter of the past few days). And there’s a mild breeze which rustles the thistles.

024cThis piece of ground was originally marshy meadowland alongside the River Tyburn. The area occupied by Green Park was called Sandpit Field; there’s a strip of alluvial sand and gravel deposits here (the presence of which caused a collapse during the tunnelling of the Victoria Line in the 1960s). Before the 15th Century it was used as a burial ground for the nearby St. James’s Leper Hospital (which was roughly where St James’s Palace stands today).
It was laid out as a park by order of Charles II after his return from exile in 1660. He bought Sandpit Field from the Pulteney family (the Earls of Bath), which lay between St James’s Park and Hyde Park, so he could ride through 2 miles of uninterrupted parkland. He had it enclosed by a brick wall and, as was the fashion, built an icehouse, to provide the royal household with all year round cold drinks.
A lot of passers-by stop to look at my drawing. A couple of young Americans ask to look. They introduce themselves (Eli and Josh) and shake hands. Eli has an under chin gnome beard. He nods at my drawing and says “woah, that’s sick!”. Josh just says “yup!”. I say “thanks”. A family with children, licking dripping lollies, lean over my sketchbook and I worry for my drawing! An unkempt, stubble- chinned man wanders over. He stands and looks and smiles and says “yes, yes” and walks back towards the spread of another plane tree, under which is a rucksack and several plastic bags and, possibly, a sleeping bag rolled up.
A pony- tailed girl in a red top has being doing a workout on the other side of the path and then, hands on hips, saunters wearily over to the drinking fountain. But some teen boys are trying to kick a football through the holes and are oblivious of anyone else. The girl shrugs her shoulders and walks away.
250 years ago, the park had a reputation as a notorious hangout for thieves and highwaymen. You’d be very unwise to go for an evening stroll without armed bodyguards. It was also known as a duelling ground; one particularly notorious duel took place there in 1730 between William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath and John Hervey, 1st Earl of Bristol over a political quarrel (both survived, though Hervey only just!). Originally it was known as ‘Upper St. James’s Park’ but renamed ‘The Green Park’ in the 1740s; not just ‘Green Park’ but ‘THE Green Park’. No one’s sure why it was given that name, but a good guess is that, as it was little more than grass, very few trees and no flower beds, it was very. Very. Green.
024aVarious improvements at the beginning of the 18th century made it more of a pleasure garden. It became a popular venue for ballooning attempts (plenty of room for soft landings!), and public firework displays; in 1749 the Temple of Peace, a huge structure, like an over flamboyant wedding cake, built of wood and canvas, erected to mark the end of the War of Austrian Succession, was half destroyed when it was hit by a firework! (Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks was composed specifically for this celebration, so presumably had a bigger than intended crescendo!). And in 1814 the Temple of Concord, erected to mark 100 years of the Hanoverian Royal family, was also destroyed by fireworks during the Prince Regent’s gala.
Drawing finished, I walk over to Constitution Hill (Charles would take his “constitutional” walks here, a regular event which is now remembered in the name), and down the dappled path towards Buckingham palace and the gold gleam of the Victoria monument between the trees.
In the 1820s, celebrated Regency architect,  John Nash  re-landscaped the park alongside alterations he was making to St James ‘s Park. Trees were planted for the first time with the intention of creating an idealised pastoral idyll in the midst of dirty, smoggy, 024bindustrialised London. All buildings within the park (that hadn’t already been destroyed by fireworks!) were eventually removed. The Tyburn was hidden in a tunnel (most of its length now sadly incorporated into London’s sewerage system).
Children are dabbling their hands in the cooling water, which slips and trickles over the bronze wedge slabs of the Canada Memorial. Designed by the Canadian sculptor Pierre Granche, and unveiled by the Queen in 1994, its inscription reads: “In two world wars one million Canadians came to Britain and joined the fight for freedom. From danger shared, our friendship prospers.
I return to the busiest corner, where people swarm through the gates from Piccadilly. I stop in the shade of one of the Plane trees which line Queens Walk. This is where once a large reservoir was dug in the 18th century, fed by the River Tyburn, called the Queen’s Basin (named after George II’s Queen Caroline), which supplied fresh water to St James’s Palace and other nearby Royal residences.  I set up my drawing things and explore the view 024dlooking west through a flickering forest of green striped deckchairs, each one a bright slip of light against the cool dark background of bank and shady hedges which border clamouring Piccadilly.
As I draw, thoughts of relativity enter my mind: I’m aware of two different space- time continuums operating in tandem:
(i) The constantly and erratically moving parade of humanity across my field of vision, on the path from Green Park station.
(ii) The deck chair loungers, grass sprawlers and sunbathers, settled in the warmth and still as stone.
I find that if I focus on (i), the (ii)’s appear even more rooted and tranquil. But if I give my attention to the (ii)’s for a while, the (i)’s become a blur of activity like frantic ants from a stick poked nest. I think I know which category I’d rather belong to on a day like this.
The breeze wafts the tree shade coolness but when the sun escapes its cloud cover from time to time, everything suddenly vibrates in its piercing heat.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

The Green Park, Piccadilly, London. W1J 9DZ
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 23: Drury Lane Garden, Covent Garden

drury-lane-gardens(Thursday 14 July 2016)

This little quarter- acre rectangle is wedged between office blocks, just round the corner from Theatre Royal Drury Lane  (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into its 3rd year!). And partly overlooked by the Fortune Theatre (The Woman in Black into its 25th year!). Today this area is a hub for family entertainment. In the early 1800s, however, this was the poorest part of London. Over- populated, rat infested and ramshackle, the entertainment it offered ranged from cock fighting and gambling slums to gin palaces and brothels!

On this muggy afternoon, as I approach the sturdy stone gateposts of the garden, a nursery rhyme bubbles up in my mind:

“Do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man?…”
It stays with me, ominously, coming and going in my head for my whole visit, like one of those slightly sinister film soundtracks with children singing discordantly.

I walk up the steps into a small paved courtyard area. It’s dominated by a mass of clematis 023aand honeysuckle and jasmine that have amalgamated into an enormous green caterpillar, supported on a hidden pergola that carries it right across the garden. Today it provides some welcome shade while I sit on the brick edge of the raised bed, take a swig from my water bottle and look around.

The space in front of me is symmetrical: brick walls and pedestals, iron railings. Evergreen trees and shrubs soften the severity of the gothic chapel buildings on either flank. Access ramps curve up to this paved area. Turning around, I can see the very busy children’s playground, enclosed with low walls and gates. A bright yellow spirally climbing frame and slide; a pair of toddlers sit at the top, oblivious of the fidgety queue behind them. Further back, high netting protects a court for ball games. Empty at the moment.

“Do you know the Muffin Man, Who lives on Drury Lane?..”
As with St John’s Gardens last week, this space was also once a burial ground (for St Martin-in-the-Fields) until the mid 19th century. And it too suffered from overcrowding.

023cAll the worse for its location in the midst of such squalid deprivation. It had the vilest reputation and was perfect inspiration for Charles Dickens. In Bleak House, it was the burial site for Nemo, the opium addict. Dickens describes it as: “pestiferous and obscene, with houses looking on on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court, a dark and miserable covered way, gives access to a burial ground where are heaps of dishonoured graves and stones, hemmed- in by filthy houses, on whose walls a thick humidity broke out like a disease”. 

The 1852 Burial Acts sought to put an end to horrific scenes like these. Larger cemeteries were being established away from the most populous parts of the city, such as Brompton Cemetery (see Sticks in the Smoke’ 6) to alleviate the pressure. This ground was closed for burials and grew wild for 20 years until, following the Open Spaces Act of 1877 (by which it became illegal to build on any ground that had been previously used for interments), it was the first burial ground to be made into a public garden in Westminster.

 “Do you know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man? Do you know the Muffin    Man, Who lives on Drury Lane- o?…”
I perch with my back to the old mortuary, from where I can take in a good width of the 023bspace, and start my drawing. Just visible above the clematis foliage is the bell tower of the Presbyterian Crown Court Church of Scotland. And next to that is the multi- spired cluster of mobile phone antennae on the roof of the Fortune Theatre. A white shirted business man strides up the steps in front of me, as though entering on stage. He’s holding a loud and exasperated phone conversation. It goes on as he slumps down onto a shaded bench opposite. The argument continues for a further 5 minutes until, with a heavy groan, he slams his phone down and hunches over with head in hands as if in prayer. He then sighs and turns and slowly lies down on the bench.

There are other players on this stage. A little boy discovers a new game: he gleefully launches his ride- on tractor down the access slope, to crash into his Mum’s legs, while she chats to a friend. He retrieves it and giggles back up the slope and repeats this a couple more times until, wearily, she hauls the wriggling bundle to her hip.

Two women with space dyed hair are feeding noodles to each other with chopsticks.

The harassed business man is now sitting and is tapping at his laptop. A child is waving coloured streamers in the playground behind him, which appear like whooshing blurs of pink and orange around his head.

“Yes I know the Muffin Man, The Muffin Man, the Muffin Man. Yes I know the Muffin Man Who lives on Drury Lane- o!..”
Two hundred years ago, muffins were dense, flattish wheat cakes: a cheap and filling foodstuff in poor areas such as Drury Lane. Muffin men, with their long aprons and trays of muffins on their heads, strode the streets, singing out their wares. It’s thought that this rhyme developed from these street cries. Other theories about it’s origins are more sinister, however. One popular belief is that the Muffin- Man was a child serial murderer, who used the little cakes to lure his victims to their gruesome fate, perhaps in the darkest corners of this graveyard. And this rhyme was about the hunt for this criminal (the last verse perhaps describing the crucial turning point in the long and tedious investigation!). But there’s no evidence to support this story.

Feeling hungry, I pack up my drawing things and leave in search of a bite to eat. Hmm, now what do I fancy?



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Drury Lane Garden, Covent Garden, London. WC2B 5TB
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 22: St John’s Gardens, Horseferry

St.-John's-Gardens(Thursday 7 July 2016)

I push impatiently through the milling Westminster crowds as midday simmers and the Big Ben bongs follow me down Millbank. I take a right and into Smith Square where the white baroque St. John’s church fills the space and the senses. Charles Dickens once described it as: “some petrified monster, frightful and gigantic, on its back with its legs in the air”. Following devastation caused by an incendiary bomb in 1941, it lay semi derelict for 20 022eyears, but was restored and reopened in 1969 as St Johns Smith Square, concert hall, now used regularly for BBC music broadcasts. There’s also the Footstool Restaurant in the crypt downstairs where I had an exhibition back in the 80’s. This is the first time I’ve been back here since. I remember fumbling my paintings up onto nails in the brick walls and embarrassingly dropping one with a splintering crash that echoed around the vaulted space!

As there wasn’t room for a churchyard in this modest residential square, a nearby field was bought from the Grosvenor Estate, and was consecrated for burials in 1731. I walk in the sombre footsteps of countless corteges over the centuries, 100 yards down to the busy Horseferry Road and across to St. John’s Gardens which now occupies the site of the old burial ground.

In the 18th century, this was a rapidly growing part of London. The burgeoning population was reflected in heavy demands for burial here. Within 20 years it was bursting at the seams  (a contemporary report states that 5126 graves were dug over a 10 year period!). To ease the congestion, 3 feet of extra topsoil were laid on top and retaining walls built, but by the early 19th century it was getting overcrowded once more. In 1823 an extra strip of land was bought to provide an extension.

The graveyard also needed watchman armed with pistols, to guard against grave robbers (the resurrection men). Body snatching was a serious problem at this time, but was serving a growing demand. Medical schools and private anatomical schools paid well for 022afresh specimens for medical research. The 1832 Anatomy Act required anatomy teachers to be licensed and only permitted donated bodies or those unclaimed to be used for dissection, which more or less put an end to this grisly activity.

I walk through the gates into the garden and there are bodies everywhere;  lying on the grass, sitting on benches eating sandwiches or lounging with backs against ancient worn gravestones which are cemented to the perimeter walls. Couples are strolling the barley twist edged paths.  A pair of shirtsleeved businessmen, drinking coffee and smoking, are leaning against a half buried and wonky monument (it almost looks like they’re pushing it over!). It commemorates Christopher Cass, master mason, who died in 1734. A highly successful stonemason in his time, who worked on the construction of of the four corner towers for St. John’s church.  I’m sure he’d be turning in his grave at the thought of the crumpled Costa cup perched on the pediment of his granite gravestone.

022cThere’s a shady coolness here. Plane tree branches rise and seem to knit together high above, where their foliage forms a high and airy canopy, gently moving and throwing flickers of light onto the paving. People gather and mingle around the fountain pool and sit on the edge, the refreshing trinkle of water behind them. This paved central area with its planted beds has the air of an alfresco meeting place, like a Mediterranean town square. An informal business conference seems to be happening on one side, dapples dancing over dark suits and blue shirts. Just over there is the HQ of Burberry; maybe the air con had broken down and they’d decided to move outside.

I skirt around the spray of a lawn sprinkler watering a triangular bed planted out with cineraria and geranium.  The long yellow hose snakes and twists across the lawns. I walk further and sit on the ground behind another flowerbed and start a drawing looking across towards one of the garden’s two tall and slender gingko trees.

022dBy the 1850s, this ground was closed for burials. It became neglected, overgrown and a haunt of villainous gangs. In the 1880’s a committee of residents raised money for it to be tidied up and, with the support of the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association and a bit of help from the Duke of Westminster, had it laid out as a public garden, which was opened on 23 May 1885. Not much has changed to the garden’s layout since then, apart from the replacement of the original central shelter with the fountain and pool.

The garden is closely overlooked on its east side by the ten storey 1930s brick cliff face of Westminster Green, originally Westminster Hospital. Opposite is St John’s buildings, equally tall, which were built as Queen Mary Nurses’ Home and Training School. Since the hospital’s relocation to Fulham in the early 90s, both buildings are now mostly upmarket apartments, with these 1½ acres serving as their back garden.  At the base of Westminster Green, openings in the garden wall are filled with a series of (‘30s inspired) abstract metalwork grills by renowned jeweller, Wendy Ramshaw, commissioned in 2005. Looking up, I see a large 4th floor 022bwindow is wide open, a woman puffs a blue cloud of cigarette smoke; a little dog cradled under her arm.

As I draw, the shh – shh of the sprinkler is a steady rhythm. A jackdaw scritches around amongst leaf litter under the shrubs behind me. A flock of pigeons take off as a body and I feel the breeze from their wings. A bumble bee flops down onto my paper and skitters about in the wet paint. I help it onto the grass but it makes a bee line for my sketchbook again. I gently scoop it over to the nearby flowerbed.

A gardener, phone clamped to her ear, turns off the sprinkler one- handedly and pulls it over the lawns towards the bed just in front of me. I decide its time to finish quickly or face another soaking like I had at Kensington Gardens two weeks ago!



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

St. John’s Gardens, Horseferry Road, Westminster, London. SW1P 4SA
Google earth view here
Image of St Johns Smith Square from London Churches in Photographs

Sticks in the Smoke 21: St Alphage Garden

St-Alphage-Gardens(Thursday 30 June 2016)

At first the way into the gardens is hard to locate amongst the the chaotic commotion of the London Wall Place development site (high rise office buildings and new landscaped gardens, hyped as the ‘most dynamic and exciting places in the City of London’.).  I’m about to give up when I see a worker jetwashing dust off a path and I catch a reflection of green in the wet. There’s a narrow passage between hoardings with a sign overhead reading SITE ENTRANCE.

Part of the eastern section of this little strip of garden (a little less than 1½ acres) is sectioned off behind more hoardings.  A mature magnolia and an oak tree are 021aprotectively boxed in. The magnolia end has signs reading ‘SMOKING AREA!’ and the area around the oak is the designated ‘VAPING AREA!’  The benches are occupied by construction workers, smoking, vaping and eating and not appearing too bothered by the signs. The garden is bounded on its north side with a long section of London Wall, topped with a band of eroded Tudor diamond brickwork, abundant with plants bursting and twining from its cracks and crevices. Beneath is a flowerbed, bursting with yellow loosestrife.
This piece of ground is shouting distance from Cripplegate (the name probably originated from the Old English crypel: to creep, as you had to duck down under the original low arch). Orginally the northern entrance to the Roman fort of Londinium, built in 120AD, a defensive bastion which housed barracks for over 1000 men. Cripplegate was built of stone, superseded by later brick gateway buildings until 1760, when it was demolished to widen the road.
In 1331, William Elsing, mercer of London was so distressed at the number of destitute blind and semi- paralysed beggars in the streets of the city, that he founded a hospital here. It was taken over by the Augustinian order 10 years later. This is where the churchyard lay for the priory church of St Mary (later to be rededicated to St Alphage, the patron saint of kidnap victims). The hospital was ordered to close in 1536, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. All that now remains of the priory buildings and church, after centuries of fire, dilapidation, neglect and the Blitz, is the stump of the original 14th Century tower, just to the south of this garden. At the moment, though, it crouches in the midst of the building site, shrouded in protective plastic (architects’ simulations show it incorporated into the proposed new garden space, populated with lots of young, shiny and smart business people!)
A flaking stone plaque in the wall states that the churchyard was closed by Act of Parliament and laid out as a public garden in 1872. After the second world war, a lower 021dsection was added to the garden, to the west, partially created from the cellar of a bombed out adjacent building; you can still see the soot blackened brickwork and an old fireplace.
I descend the wooden steps into the paved lower garden and feel like I’m climbing down through time, the space is dominated by a further butt of the old London Wall, its textures catching and refracting the sunlight. This section of wall was an important part of London’s defensive fortifications until Saxon times. Over the following centuries, the remains of the wall were butchered, plundered, patched up, and incorporated into other buildings. There are still surviving fragments of the wall throughout the City. It’s enthralling to be so close to this stonework. I run my fingers along its rough flank, feeling the planes and edges of ragstones and flint bedded here by Roman, Saxon and medieval hands.
There are four rectangular wooden planters with lilies and a mix of bedding plants. A single bench sits, empty, at the end. Half the garden’s width has been built up into 3 tiers of planted beds, colourfully laid out with precise ranks of geraniums and nicotiana. The beds curve around to the far end, where the garden jams up against the 10 storeyed block of Roman House.
This whole area sprouts tall and massive with glass and concrete office buildings. And a 021blittle north, the brutalist Barbican Estate. They are the result of regeneration schemes to resurrect a new business and residential district, covering some 28 acres, from the ashes and devastation of wartime bombing. Developed and then redeveloped. I’m acutely aware of this today: a constant percussion section of drilling, hammering and battering, pierced by the shrill toot toot toot of reversing cement lorries.
I climb up behind the shrubs to the topmost tier and draw the view back down into the deep well of this space, guarded by the crag of the ancient wall and fringed with magnolia tree, fern and shrub foliage. A glimpse of sky flickering though. Hidden birdsong from the undergrowth: teep teep teep. Behind me a rickety trellis over which construction workers lean and smoke. One nods and says “alright?” with east European inflection and flicks his fag end down into a shaggy privet bush.
There’s an access gate through to the Salter’s Garden, which underlines Basil Spence‘s dramatic modernist Salter’s Hall.  Laid out with lawn, box hedges, pergolas and paths, with three fountains and pond. It’s supposed to be open to the public from 9 – 5 on weekdays and I’d love to look closely at the other side of London Wall. But today the 021cgate is locked.
No one comes to this lower garden for the whole 2 hours until, just as I’m finishing, a young builder comes down and saunters over to the bench, lays his hard hat beside him and puts in his earphones.
This little space is enclosed on all sides but no feeling of claustrophobia here. Surrounded by clamour and clatter but down here is strangely tranquil. Overshadowed on all four sides by monumental blocks but still full of light.



(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

St. Alphage Gardens, London. EC2Y 5EL
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 20: Kensington Gardens (north east)

kensington-gardens-1(Thursday 23 June 2016)

The day of the EU Referendum. An ominous and static feel in the air, muggy and thunderous. The pavements are wet and taxis splash the gutters, still full from an earlier rainstorm. I dash across Bayswater Road and into the gardens through Marlborough Gate.

Kensington Gardens is the twin sister of Hyde Park. They share an early history as Henry VIII’s royal hunting grounds (see Sticks in the Smoke 10). It was separated from the remainder of Hyde Park in 1728 by order of Queen Caroline (wife of George II) and designed by Henry Wise and Charles Bridgeman to form Baroque style landscape gardens and parkland for Kensington Palace. These included fashionable features such as the Round Pond, formal avenues and a sunken Dutch garden. The River Westbourne was damned to create the Long Water on its eastern flank, which flows on into the Serpentine.
At exactly the point where the Westbourne would have once gently flowed through grazed pasture is the Italian Garden. There are four stretched octagonal ponds walled in Carrara marble, and a smaller central pool, each with fountain, spurting arcs of water sparkling against the sky. They are planted with water lilies, bright yellow flag iris, flowering rush and purple loosestrife. An Italianate shelter overlooks the garden (originally built to disguise the Victorian steam powered pump for 020bthe fountains), today filled with a picnicking school party which has spread itself over benches and spill down its steps.
I stroll towards the garden end, where a balustrade with stone urns and water nymphs and the Tazza Fountain (no water today, just dank and dripping), frame the view down to the wilder, more naturalised Long Pond. Down there are overgrown banks, twisting branches of a dead tree, reeds and twining brambles. I peer over and see a sleek fat coot and fluffy chick, dabbling at water edge flotsam. Suddenly this becomes a portion of wild country river transposed into the city! It stretches down towards the Serpentine Bridge, the opposite view to my drawing of the Serpentine exactly three months ago. I balance my  sketchbook on the edge of the nearest pond, so I can draw the fountain spray against the distant trees. And looking down is the zinging contrast of almost fluorescent green pond algae floating above the deepest violet sky. A large carp slowly flips its fin and stirs the surface.
The Italian Garden was designed by architect Sir James Pennethorne in 1860, commissioned by Prince Albert as a gift for Queen Victoria, inspired by the Italian Garden at Osborne House, their home on the Isle of Wight. Painstaking renovations and repairs have been carried out over the past two decades or so, to the frost damaged stonework, choked pipework and corroded fountains. This was funded by the Tiffany and Co Foundation020a. Thirteen tonnes of silt were dredged from the fountain basins and the fountains are now fed with fresh, cold water from a deep borehole. This water is aerated and warmed by the fountains, before flowing out to improve the ecology of The Long Water.
As I draw, an occasional gust brings a welcome cooling mizzle from the fountain. Teenage girls eating lunch shriek as pigeons flap and flock at their feet.
Many garden visitors amble past, an unsteady stream of the world’s languages behind me. Several stop and look. Some ask to take photos. A bearded German man asks me to hold my sketchbook up for the camera. An eastern European girl asks me how much my drawing might be! She tells me she works in a hotel overlooking the gardens and visits the park railings art exhibition every Sunday, just over there, along the Bayswater Road. She loves the variety of art to be seen: “So many different ways of making painting..”
At 265 acres, Kensington Gardens is far too big for just one visit, so I will aim to return at least once more over the next few months to explore more of this fascinating and multifarious tract of land. But I do have time today for another drawing so I take Budges Walk, which leads, straight as a march to Kensington Palace, half a mile at the other end of the park. The footpaths and walks run and radiate like dot- to- dot lines, linking the 22 020cgates and the gardens’ main features. Most haven’t changed course for over 200 years, trodden and flattened by Londoners’ feet since the gardens were first opened to the public (on Sunday nights only, at first) in 1733.
The walk is lined with a procession of chestnut, oak and lime up to the Speke monument (an elegant red granite obelisk commemorating John Hanning Speke, the explorer who discovered Lake Victoria and the source of the Nile). Up here I’m transported into rural parkland and away from traffic hum. There’s grassy open space all around, with rides and arboured views towards the palace or through to the rearing equestrian ‘Physical Energy’ Statue to the south. The scent of horses and damp soil lifts from the ground like mist. This has the feel of countryside, a direct progression from wilderness to grazing land to Royal deer park to city breathing space. People are scattered few and far, the occasional glimpse of blue or red or yellow. I meander along paths through long grass and between trees. I hear the little ting of a bell from somewhere.
020dA couple are sitting partially hidden behind a ragged bush. They’re in their own private space, each oblivious to anything beyond the other. I discreetly detour and onto Lancaster Walk, leading north, catching glints of the spire of St James’s at Sussex Gardens, silver grey between the tree tops.
I keep hearing the little bell. It carries on, intermittently ringing over the long meadow grass. I can’t quite place it, but try to follow. I’m led to a clearing where a scatter of golden hawkweed are growing. I settle here and start to draw but within seconds a few fat drops of rain on my sketchbook page make the ink lines burst. Then all the heavens open and I have to scoop up my things and scuttle for shelter under a nearby sweet chestnut tree which keeps me dry (for a while!) as I paint. And then a great thunderclap! It seems to resonate throughout the whole volume of the tree! The rain gets heavier still, and there’s a cold trickle down the back of my neck!
I hear that jingling sparkle of the bell again. Much closer. A couple of mums, running with buggies and umbrellas, slosh past. And the ringing recedes with them into the veil of rain.


(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Kensington Gardens, London. W2 2UH
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 19: Soho Square Gardens

soho-square(Wednesday 15 June 2016)

I walk from Greek Street into Soho Square, 3 minutes north of Shaftesbury Avenue. Just on the corner here is the Georgian dark bricked House of St Barnabas (a charity established in 1846 for the homeless and needy). Looking up, its original red and gold glazed tile frieze, announces ‘House of Charity’. At the opposite corner is the elegant 1930’s Twentieth Century House, UK home to 20th Century Fox. Many of the other buildings in the square: old and porticoed,  bow windowed, or bold glass and brick, house the offices of various film, music and media organisations, including Dolby and The British Board of Film Censors. The area is a hub of the entertainment industry; the surrounding streets full of theatres, nightclubs, bars and sex shops.

019dThe sky is a deep slate violet with low threatening clouds as I hurry across Soho Square towards the entrance to the gardens. There’s a feel and scent in the air of approaching rain. Referendum ‘Remain‘ campaigners have stationed themselves at this entrance to the gardens to hand out leaflets and ‘IN’ stickers. I take a sticker and fix it to my rucksack. As I go through the gate I turn to look back and see a group of American (or maybe Canadian?) tourists, all taking stickers too. I think they believe they need them to get ‘IN’ to the gardens!

Tall black iron railings outline this 1 acre of lawns and trees, subdivided by crossing paths. Another path runs all around, just inside the perimeter, with benches at close intervals, mostly occupied today. More benches around a wide paved area, just above the entrance. As I go up the three shallow steps, a man in tight black outfit lunges in my direction with arms flailing. I step aside and then watch him perform a kind of acrobatic dance, while softly chanting a repeated phrase.  I soon realise that this isn’t intended as a public performance; he appears oblivious to the throngs of people who are steering clear of his dance floor. It seems like a personal ritual. Or maybe a rehearsal. And then I make out his chant: “I’m soo beautiful, from my eyes right down to my cuticles…!” Hmm…I move on but am aware that he continues his dance obsessively for the whole time I’m in the gardens.

019aThe gardens’ central feature is a crooked black and white Tudor- timbered lodge, placed where the paths cross, like a little gingerbread house. You’d think it was an original feature of this old garden but was actually built in the late 19th century, using 200- year old oak beams. In the 1920’s it housed an electricity substation. Today it’s used as a garden store. And its verandas provide welcome shelter for visitors escaping wet weather. It is also the fire exit for World War II air raid shelters which were built under the gardens to provide a Blitz bolthole for up to 200 local residents (the lease for this space was put up for sale recently for possible conversion into a glamorous subterranean bar or nightclub).

This square and surrounding streets occupy what was originally a tract of farmland known as Soho Fields, owned by the Earl of St Albans. The name ‘Soho’ is said to derive from a local hunting cry. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, these gardens were laid out and and were called King’s Square to venerate the newly reinstalled Charles II. Ornamental trees and rose bushes were planted in symmetrical beds. A stately statue of Charles was carved in gleaming Portland stone by Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber in 1681 and was originally placed on a fountain in the centre of the gardens, where the lodge now stands. It was surrounded by sculptures of the river gods of the Severn, Thames, Tyne and Humber as a symbol of the King’s regained power and dominion over 019bthe four corners of the land.  After 200 years, however, constant spray from the fountains had eroded Charles and given him a clown- like expression. He was taken down and retired to stand on an island in a lake near Harrow, but was restored and reinstated on the garden’s northern path in 1938: a second Restoration! (He still looks like a clown though!).

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the square and surrounding streets were developed with grand houses and quickly became one of London’s most fashionable districts, with the embassies of Venice, Spain, Naples, Sweden, France and Russia occupying houses in the square at various times. A drift away by the gentry towards fashionable Mayfair residences in the early 19th century prompted a shift into the square by doctors, lawyers, architects and companies such as Crosse and Blackwell setting up office.

I walk around a mass of white and deep red bedding plants (alyssums?), which edge the path on one side of the lodge. I take out my sketchbook and lay it with my drawing things against the exposed root of a plane tree.  I draw towards the north gate and Soho Street, with the lodge in the foreground and, further down, the statue of Charles II as a bright as a ghost.

A few raindrops pinprick the paths but stop within minutes. At 3 o’clock, great bongs ring out from the red brick tower of St Pat’s (St. Patrick’s Catholic church) and, as if commanded, the sun pushes the clouds apart and dappled shadows spread across the lawns. St Pats squarely sits opposite the eastern entrance to the gardens, with Roman porch and columns. It has extensive catacombs that spread deep under the square. The ringing carries on for well over 5 minutes, the last bong seeming to bounce several times around the square until the babble of many voices takes over again.

So many people here, so wonderfully diverse. I can’t help people watching. And there are a lot of groups, including:

019cConstruction workers from the Crossrail site at the end of Sutton Row (behind St Pat’s), wandering through the gardens like fiery beacons in their orange hi- vis. Two of them pause in front of the lodge and eat ice creams that drip on their boots.

A line of about 8 or 9 men sitting close together on a low wall, eating packed lunches. They’re all dressed entirely in white. Some with white caps. Maybe a bakers’ day out?

A line of rucksacked and yellow-baseball- capped schoolchildren (they sound Spanish). A tangle of excitement, they’re led purposefully along the path by a teacher with guide book. Two minutes later, they march back the other way!

A group of smiling women float past serenely in brightly coloured silk dresses and robes, fluttering like living flags.

Drawing finished, I walk away and a gang of marauding pigeons swirl and swoop down on the crumbs of my almond croissant.

I leave the gardens, walking past a bench (occupied), commemorating Kirsty MacColl (who died in a tragic accident in Mexico in 2000). This has become a kind of mecca for her fans. The inscription on the bench takes lyrics from her song ‘Soho Square‘: “One day I’ll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square”.

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Soho Square, Soho, London. W1D 3QE
Google earth view here

Sticks in the Smoke 18: Meanwhile Gardens

Meanwhile-gardens(Wednesday 8 June 2016)

A 4- acre green oasis that hugs a gentle bend in the Grand Union Canal, a little under a mile west of Little Venice and Rembrandt Gardens ( see Sticks in the Smoke 11). It’s also only a very short walk along Kensal Road back to Emslie Horniman Pleasance (see Sticks in the Smoke 9). Before getting here today, I had to drive across London and 018dback through painfully slow traffic on a very warm and humid day, to deliver some work to a company in the City for a possible commission. Now, hot and sticky and irritable, I walk in through the gate at the east end of the gardens and dive into a cool patch of tree shade, and follow the shade patches like stepping- stones over to the blue Carlton Bridge, which carries the Great Western Road over the canal.

It was while crossing this bridge, back in 1974, that young sculptor, Jamie McCullough spotted a stretch of derelict waste ground which was being cleared of demolished Victorian terraces. In a desire to move away from the conventions of the 70’s art world, he was inspired to direct his creativity towards the founding of a community space which would bring a haven and a place of joy and nature to the people of, what was then, a run- down and deprived area.  He spent the following 2 years working with schools, community groups and Westminster City Council to progress his vision. The council had no immediate plans for the land, so eventually granted temporary permission in 1976, but only until a permanent use could be found, hence the name. The Meanwhile Gardens Community Association was set up as a charity to oversee the project with the help of volunteers. The gardens have continued to rely on the input of volunteers and dedicated staff. In recent years it has received awards and grants from the national lottery and the British Waterways Board.

This was the first of many of Jamie McCullough’s landscape projects which include the ‘Beginner’s Way‘ in Haldon Forest, Devon, and inspired a generation of community artists. He wrote a book about his Meanwhile Gardens project, published by the Gulbenkian Association.  Jamie died in 1998 at the age of 53

Lawns undulate and rise to the tow path. A string of colourful narrowboats are moored. As the water claps at the canal wall a group of boaters are chatting and one stands astride the gap between boat and edge. He points across to the other side where a pair of swans are puffed up and fiercely guarding their clutch of fluffy hatchlings on a ledge at the foot of the sunlit canalside apartment blocks. My mood softens.

This is a practical, lived- in park. Not manicured, over- pruned or weeded (a bit like my back garden!). The path sweeps down and past the swooping and rattling and (very) 018cgraffitied skatepark bowl, the first in London and still very popular. A colourful sculptural drinking fountain designed by Steve Bunn is called ‘Soft Landing 2007’ and is an abstract response to the twists and turns of the skaters. Graffiti spills onto the railway sleepered sides of the curving path which leads past a playground with paddling pool and life-size (friendly) croccodile. And there’s the Playhut (closed on Wednesdays), which provides stimulating creative play and nature learning for the youngsters of the many families living in the drab blocks of Elkstone road or the brutalist Trellick Tower, looming there behind the trees on the left.

I follow the snaking path through narrow woodland of birches and beech. The air is cool. A boardwalk leads down to a platform overlooking the duckweed covered pond, with flag irises and waterside plants. A perfect spot for local school groups to come and study tadpoles and water boatmen and dip dripping nets. A wagtail hops and jerks around the edge, chirruping noisily.

018aRustic, rough- hewn fences and gates draw you into the depths of the Meanwhile Wildlife Garden. This is run by Kensington and Chelsea Mind, to provide support and training for people suffering mental distress, to achieve better lives, through developing, nurturing and maintaining a natural wildlife habitat. The ethos is to use only British native plants and trees and encourage wildlife. There’s even a multi- storey insect hotel, made out of piled palettes and stuffed with sticks and organic matter: ‘Open to all beneficial insects’. This feels like a fragment of our local woods, with hazel, birch and damson trees. My hand brushes bark and I feel absorbed, relaxed and at home here. Only the red flashes of buses passing along Kensal Road remind me where I am.  I push through luxuriant growth of elder, bracken and forget- me- not, down a sun- dappled earthy path and find a little clearing, with a foliage- framed ‘window’ out towards the sunny brightness of canal and towpath.  I stand and draw here, from my shaded haven: an unobserved observer as towpath strollers and runners pass. The melody of birdsong and background traffic hum are interrupted by bursts of drilling from the nearby housing block.

Later, I cross the twisty- sided bridge to the garden hub, where compost heaps, 018bplanted containers, wooden benches, logpiles, boulders, piles of earth and old wooden barrow verify a working space. The wooden garden office / shed is welcoming and calming blue and green. A polytunnel runs behind, the sound of trowel chinking on flowerpot.

As I leave, my eye catches a notice pinned to the board: a quotation from gardening writer, David Hobson“Yup, gardening and laughing are two of the best things in life you can do to promote good health and a sense of well being.”

(In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew is  visiting, researching and drawing a different public park or garden in Central London each week of 2016, leading to a collection of paintings exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. These will be shown in an exhibition in London in 2017. )

Meanwhile Gardens, 156 – 158 Kensal Road, London. W10 5BN
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